Arc Words

The Doctor: "Bad Wolf".
Rose: But I've heard that before; "Bad Wolf." I've heard that lots of times.
The Doctor: Everywhere we go: two words. Followin' us. "Bad Wolf..."

A word or phrase that appears throughout an Arc as a Motif.

Arc Words can be a way to hint at the Aesop or one of the themes of a show, often in the form of a question the characters must find an answer to. Alternately, they can be used for Foreshadowing.

They're often cryptic, and left unexplained until the Climax or Dénouement. This builds up tension and mystery, and hints that anyone using the words knows more than they're telling. This enigmatic variant is a typical element of a Mind Screw, and is sometimes used as a memetic way of advertising the show.

Arc Words need not have attention drawn explicitly to them; they often rely instead on eagle-eyed/sharp eared viewers noticing for themselves. In the "Bad Wolf" example from the first series of the revival of Doctor Who, the words appeared as, among other things, a helicopter's callsign, a reference in dialogue to "The Big Bad Wolf", a graffito, and even in other languages (the [inaccurate] German Schlechter Wolf, and the Welsh Blaidd Drwg, the latter tipping off the Doctor about it).

Look for these on the Internet Movie Database "memorable quotes" page for the show, with the label "repeated line".

The high-browed, academic term used for this is "Leitwort" from the German for "leading" or "guiding word."

When this is a number instead of a phrase, it's Arc Number, and Arc Symbol if it's an image. Compare with Dream Melody. Not to be confused with Arc Reactor Words, which generally have to do with caves and boxes of scraps.

Arc Words are not the same thing as a Running Gag, a Catch-Phrase, or even just a phrase that ends up popping up a lot due to being used a lot in the plot. "May the Force be with you" are not arc words; it's an expression and a social nicety. Arc Words also must help define the tone of their entire work, or at least the plot arc where they appear.


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    Pro Wrestling 
  • The run-up to Chris Jericho's return to WWE in 2007 had the commentators and the wrestlers on-screen puzzling over mysterious interruptions to WWE's programs that prominently featured the phrases SAVE_US.222, SAVE_US.X29, and 8.2.11/SAVIOR_SELF. Most of the puzzlement happened on-screen; the fans largely figured it out fairly quickly (though there were a few alternate theories that stuck around until The Reveal, chief among them a new Hart Foundation stable led by Bret Hart's nephew Teddy), which reportedly drove WWE's creative team nuts.


    Tabletop Games 

  • In Anastasia, the Dowager Empress's description of Anastasia: "My favorite. Strong, not afraid of anything."
  • "Nothing" and "something" in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
  • Into the Woods
    • Count the number of times they say "children", "giant(s)", "witch(es)", "wish(es)", "wolves", "spell(s)", "right", " wood(s) and "wrong" just in a generic context.
    • "I wish" is always sung the exact same way, with the same two notes.
    • The words "nice" and "good" — particularly in lines sung by Cinderella and Little Red.
  • Hamilton has a number of words and phrases repeated throughout the show.
    • Many phrases used by and about Alexander are double meanings which foreshadow his fatal duel with Aaron Burr. He insists on "not throwing away my shot", as in opportunity. Other characters question why he works as though he's "running out of time." And more than once people say that he'll never be "satisfied" because he's so ambitious.
    • "Wait" for ambition. "Just you wait" is sung by Hamilton, while "wait for it" is Burr's credo.
    • "Enough" represents Eliza's contentment with life which changes as Hamilton's death finally spurns her into action to preserve his legacy.
    • Counting up to ten is directly associated with dueling—that it's sung by Alexander's son in a childhood exercise is significant.
    • Moving from one segment of the show to the next always has Burr singing "how does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore" in reference to Alexander.
    • "History has its eyes on you," first sung by Washington and repeated by others in reference to legacy.
  • Julius Caesar: "Beware the Ides of March..." Guess what happens to Caesar on that day.
  • Korczak's Children: A play the orphanage children are putting on comes up numerous times, with Doctor Korczak asking people what they think it means, always using the words "What is it about?"
  • "Look down" and "Tomorrow" in Les Misérables.
  • Matilda: "(My mummy says I'm a) Miracle", "That's not right", "(A little bit) Naughty", "This little girl", and "Revolt(ing)".
  • Merrily We Roll Along gives us a strange example in that, since the show is told Back to Front, we first see the words' climax, and then we're shown where they came from and what they mean. Most notably:
    • "Here's to us. Who's like us?" "Damn few."
    • "Old friends."
    • And the whole title song, in a sense, considering it's repeated throughout the show between scenes. Particularly, "How does it happen?" and "Rolling along."
  • Eric Overmyer's On the Verge: "Vaya con dios!"
  • "A big, bright beautiful world" in Shrek: The Musical.
  • Tanz Der Vampire: "Sei bereit!" ("Be prepared!")
  • The Secret Garden: "Come spirit, come charm", and "Come to my garden".
  • In the absurdist play Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, the following snippet of dialogue recurs, almost as a refrain (and to punctuate the various ways the two find to pass the time):
    Gogo: Let's go.
    Didi: We can't.
    Gogo: Why not?
    Didi: We're waiting for Godot.
    • Or:
    Gogo: Let's go.
    Didi: Yes, let's go.
    They do not move.
  • Wicked:
    • Replete with them. "I'm/We're/You're unlimited" stands out. "You deserve each other" is also used quite frequently. Also, "a celebration throughout Oz / That's all to do with (me/you)".
    • The words "wicked" and "good" themselves.

    Visual Novels 
  • Any variation on "seven years ago" in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney.
    • Lampshaded in game: "Seven years... That phrase sure likes to pop up, doesn't it..."
    • It pops up again in Dual Destinies, along with "The Dark Age of the Law" and "a third party".
    • Likewise, DL-6 or "fifteen years ago" in the original, or any mention of Edgeworth in Justice for All.
      • Really, the phrase "X years ago" comes up so often in Ace Attorney that it's almost surprising to come across a case that doesn't use it.
    • SL-9 takes this role in the first game's DS bonus case, Rise from the Ashes.
    • "The only time a lawyer can cry is when it's all over" from the third game.
    • "Proof of our friendship" from the third case of Dual Destinies.
  • Dangan Ronpa: "Despair", and also "hope".
    • Super Dangan Ronpa 2 also has "future" in addition to the other two.
    • Across both, "the biggest, most awful, most tragic event in all of human history".
    • New Dangan Ronpa V3: Everyone's New Semester of Mutual Killing has "Truth" and "Lies".
      • It also has the Gopher Project, and the Ultimate Hunt.
      • During chapter 5, it tries to pull a switch to the arc words of the older series. It feels forced though, and for good reason.
  • Ever17: "This story is not an end yet. Because only you are in the infinity loop."
    • "Infinity loop" is pretty much the arc phrase of the whole Infinity series.
  • Fate/stay night: "I am the bone of my sword/My body is made of swords."
    • To a lesser extent, "hill of swords".
  • Fleuret Blanc has "We are, each of us, a collection of mistakes." It's engraved above the statues in the foyer (and is thus seen at the end of every day), and characters will sometimes echo it. Metatextually, it ties into the Central Theme of materialism and possession; textually, it is implied to be the motto of the White family, who were the original owners of the Chateau.
  • G-Senjou no Maou has "Oh come, lovely child! Oh come thou with me! For many a game will I play there with thee!", from The Erl-King by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
  • Little Busters!: "Do you know the secret of this world?"
  • In Shikkoku no Sharnoth several phrases and questions are repeated, including the most common 'Have you given up yet?' and 'And thus I deny tomorrow.'
  • Spoofed in Steins;Gate, wherein Okabe Rintarou constantly attributes unusual and serendipitous occurrences to the decisions of a mysterious entity called the Steins Gate. What is this Steins Gate? Just a nonsense term Okabe made up because it sounds cryptically meaningful. At the end of the series, the Steins Gate is revealed to be a world line that lies outside of any Attractor Fields and thus has no predestined outcome... and is only called Steins Gate because Okabe named it.
  • When They Cry:
    • Higurashi: When They Cry has "I'm sorry" and "USO DA!" ("THAT'S A LIE!"), both quite common phrases in themselves, but both clear indicators that things are about to get worse.
    • Umineko: When They Cry: "Without love, it cannot be seen." or "Without love, the truth cannot be seen." Also appears in different variations in both anime and game openings.
  • The Zero Escape games all have "Seek a way out!," the words that always appear before starting a Room Escape Game puzzle and the overarching goal of the series to find a way to escape the setting and have everyone live.
    • Zero Time Dilemma also has the phrases "Time to decide!" and "Life is simply unfair".

    Real Life 
  • Some advertising campaigns tend to do this.
  • This Very Wiki. And some more egregious examples on it as well.
  • Kilroy Was Here, a piece of graffiti used by the US military, with no clear meaning or origin.
  • Common phrases like "the more things change, the more they stay the same" or "all's well that ends well".
  • Illusionists and mentalists like Derren Brown will often use subconscious arc words in their illusions; in one example, Brown uses phony news reports, confidence-building mental trickery and conveniently-placed advertisements to convince his subject to do the unthinkable and rob an armored car (albiet a phony armored car, staffed with actors).

"Will Ruin Your Life." What does that mean?

Alternative Title(s): Arc Word